Archaeology and Technology in the Deep Sea

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Bronze statue of Zeus or Poseidon, dating to about 460 B.C. This statue was recovered from the sea decades ago near Cape Artemision, Euboea, Greece and is exhibited in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. All of the fine bronze Classical statues in that museum were recovered from sites underwater. (Brendan Foley WHOI)

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Launching the original Jason ROV from the SSV Carolyn Chouest at Skerki Bank in 1997. (WHOI)

Related Files

» ENALIA article
2002 article by Brendan Foley and David Mindell, published in ENALIA, the journal of the Hellenic Institute of Marine Archaeology. This piece lays out a philosophy for archaeology in deep water.

Related Links

» ABE/Sentry - Autonomous Underwater Vehicles

» "Nereus" Hybrid ROV


» MIT's DeepArch Research Group
Homepage of the Deep Water Archaeology Research Group at MIT, led by Prof. David Mindell.

» The Thera Foundation
The Thera Foundation, based on the Greek island of Santorini, has long supported archaeological investigations of Cycladic and Minoan cultures.

A philosophy for archaeology in the deep sea

Robotics, Precision In situ Survey, Collaboration, and Scholarship

New technologies allow archaeologists to explore the human past in the depths of the ocean, far beyond the 50 meter depth boundary set by SCUBA diving. Using robots and advanced sensors originally developed for other applications, social scientists now are following the path of marine scientists, adapting deep submergence technologies for their own research. Existing Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) and Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) allow archaeologists to survey the sea floor to depths of 6000 m. This brings 98% of the world’s ocean floor within reach. WHOI's new Hybrid ROV will extend our presence to the ultimate depths of the ocean.

These technical systems increase dramatically the number of underwater sites available for archaeological study. Several projects in the past ten years in the Mediterranean and Black Seas have proven the scientific merit of archaeology in deep water and trained an international cadre of archaeologists in the new technology and methods. These projects have also demonstrated that meaningful information can be extracted from sites through in situ sensing combined with precision navigation and control. Data from high definition camera systems, acoustic sensors, and chemical detectors can deliver answers to many first-order archaeological questions. Physical intrusion on sites is feasible via robotics, whether limited to collection of artifacts visible on the sea floor or excavation into lower strata. While an excavation phase may be appropriate for some sites, it should not be assumed necessary for all sites.

Our experience shows that it is imperative that work in deep water be collaborative. Projects are particularly fruitful when they bring together as a team technologists familiar with the systems, archaeologists trained in the methods of deep water work, and archaeologists specializing in the period, cultures, and geographical regions pertinent to the shipwrecks. A key lesson is that while technology plays a significant part in this work, it must be combined with the research designs, methodology, and insights of archaeologists to form archaeology in deep water into a rigorous scientific practice. Toward this goal, underwater vehicles, precision navigation, and remote sensors specifically designed for archaeology will allow archaeologists to make fundamental discoveries about ancient cultures.


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Shipwrecks Offer Clues to Ancient Cultures

Oceanus Magazine features some of WHOI's Mediterranean shipwreck investigations.


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Last updated June 14, 2012
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